Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Road Ragin'

So Ann Arbor has been having a bit of a pedestrian crisis over the last couple of weeks. It seems like a good chunk of it was spurred on by this video (I’ll let you judge for yourself), but there is definitely some truth to the idea that many parts of Ann Arbor just aren’t very pedestrian friendly.
The question for the city then is how to fix this problem and the answers – at least so far – have been fairly predictable. More laws and more money.

The city council took care of the laws over a year ago, passing an ordinance to require that drivers stop for pedestrians approaching a crosswalk (state law requires that drives only stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk).

The money part is still in the works. Plans have not been finalized, but the city recently passed a resolution resolving to study crosswalks across town (progress!). In some instances, the city may consider installing HAWK systems. No, HAWK is not the state that will be pigless* for the second year in a row (that is Hawkeye). HAWK stands for High-intensity Activated crossWalK. Sure. Whatever you say.

*Ok. I introduced this thing a post ago and forgot to explain it. This little aside is a writing technique I blatantly lifted from JoePosnanski. Then again, the Posterisk (as he calls it) seems to be rather similar to Bill Simmons’ footnote technique… No matter, this version will be called the Patsterisk in honor of the co-founder of the blog.
Now, back to the point of this sidetrack. That’s right. Some school play for boots and bones, tomahawks or turtles. But not Minnesota and Iowa. We play for a freaking pig. The story goes that the gopher governor bet a prize hog on the outcome of one of the interstate contests (this was clearly before Jesse Ventura’s time). When the maroon and gold won, Iowa’s governor got revenge the best way he (being educated in Iowa) knew how: he named the pig after Minnesota’s governor. Thus, Floyd (the pig) of Rosedale farms came into being.

HAWKs are being used in many other cities as well. The basic idea is that the HAWK functions as a poor man’s stoplight. Uponpedestrian activation, the HAWK stops traffic, then tells the pedestrian tocross.* There is already one in town on Huron west of Main.

*Slow down, prepare to stop, stop? Seriously? Maybe they should add at step entitled “start to stop.” That sequence reminds me of a line from a really bad good movie.

So the HAWK is fancy and the HAWK is complicated. What else is it? Well, it is designed for intersections with sufficient pedestrian traffic and it is expensive – up to one hundred grand to install and two G’s to maintain annually. So if the city does decide to put more of these bad boys up, let’s hope they really do their homework first.

Of course, neither the laws nor the money really do much to get at the heart of the problem: it’s tough to cross a five-lane street.

I’ve only been here for a year and change, but it seems pretty clear that Ann Arbor likes to think of itself as a vibrant town of some sort – not too big, not too small, just right. That self-image jives pretty well with campus, Kerrytown, and some other neighborhoods but really goes out the window in others. As you move farther and farther from downtown, the city starts to looks suspiciously like a suburb. This is not a bad thing, unless of course you are on foot.

Five lane roads with strip malls set back from the street by huge parking lots are what really make parts of the city “unfriendly” to pedestrians. Adding a couple six-figure (that is both in dollars and the number of symbols used to tell you when tostop/go/start to go) lighting systems to the streets or new laws to the books won’t really change that.

What my engineering self is trying to say is that function follows form: attributes of a city are derived from how that city is designed. An area designed for high car flow and low pedestrian traffic will not be very “walkable” no matter what.

Fuller Road offers a good case study. For the out-of-town-ers, Fuller basically connects the university’s central, medical, and north campuses. It is understandably heavily traveled and also the site of frequent AAPD fundraising.* It’s not that speed limits aren’t posted or that police are being somehow sinister on that stretch of road by picking off speeders – it’s just that everything else about the street says “open ‘er up.” There are few intersections and fewer stoplights. It is a functionally a five lane highway with ample divide between eastbound and westbound lanes. It’s not just that it feels like you can be going faster on Fuller Road – it feels like you should be going faster.

*Which is fine. I have watched this scenario play out plenty of times on the bus ride home. My only suggestion is that YOU PULL OFF THE ROAD INTO THE PARKING LOT LIKE 100 FEET IN FRONT OF YOU TO GET YOUR TICKET SO THAT A.) THE OFFICER WRITING YOU THE TICKET DOESN’T GET HIT AND BECOME EVEN GRUMPIER AND B.) BOTH LANES OF TRAFFIC CAN REMAIN OPEN AND I CAN GET HOME TO MY SUMMIT EPA, CROSSWORD, AND TURKEY SANDWICH FASTER. Come to think of it, why don’t police officers make the people they are pulling over do that? Rant over.

So basically, the problem is not driver compliance or proper signaling. The real problem is that parts of the city are designed to work in one way, but now we want them to work in another.Sometimes you can do that, but it usually doesn’t work out too well. It seems silly to give a single pedestrian the power to stop columns of cars at will – especially during rush hour in the cold November rain.* And it seems impossible to turn a four lane traffic artery into a nice boulevard that pedestrians can traipse across at will. The city is basically handcuffed. I can imagine that many are frustrated by some of the mistakes made by cityplanners of yore. In this case, however, our only real consolation is that we don’t have to repeat them.

*It was just stuck in my head. Please don’t revoke my Patsterisk privileges.


  1. Just watched Predator the other night. "I ain't got time to bleed" - Jesse Ventura. In any case, agreed on pretty much all points. Side note: you're letting your city roots show.

  2. I like that our Fuller Road convo made it to the big leagues!

    In your "research", did you figure out whether those crosswalk buttons actually do anything? Or are they just to trick pedestrians into feeling like they have power?

  3. I think you try to transfer some of that visceral fear from the pedestrians to the cars. I suggest weapons, or things that make loud noisy.

    Or you could create something to protect the pedestrians. Maybe a large, square, metal box of safety. You should probably give it seats and air conditioning so the pedestrians are comfortable.


Keep it civil.